Programme Notes: Parasite

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details. 

“I’m not making a documentary or propaganda here. It’s not about telling you how to change the world or how you should act because something is bad, but rather showing you the terrible, explosive weight of reality. That’s what I believe is the beauty of cinema.”[1] 

These words from Parasite director and co-writer Bong Joon Ho pretty accurately sum up the effect of this twisty, supremely entertaining drama. It operates on many levels (both literally and thematically), including but not limited to: social commentary, critique of capitalism, home-invasion horror, slapstick comedy, bleak satire and that Hollywood favourite, a ‘story about storytelling’. It is also deftly balanced in terms of eliciting audience sympathies, complicating its initial ‘poor family scams rich family’ set-up with the introduction of a third, even more desperate family at the film’s halfway point. As well as providing one of the most effective and surprising reveals in recent cinema memory, this twist adds significant layers to the story’s meaning, and allows an audience to leave the cinema legitimately pondering what the film’s title may be a reference to.

But Bong’s great achievement is that he never allows all this meaty substance to take precedence over his film’s purest cinematic pleasures: Parasite is primarily a thrilling piece of entertainment – terrifying and beautiful in equal measure. Like The Handmaiden, the 2016 hit from Bong’s fellow countryman Park Chan Wook, Parasite satisfies critics, awards bodies and regular cinemagoers in equal measure; a hat-trick that continually eludes filmmakers from the West. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May 2019, and seems certain to become the first Korean film to win the Oscar for Foreign Language Film. It has struck a chord with cinema-goers: having taken over $30million at the US box office, and over $72million in its native South Korea, it is approaching the records of Pulp Fiction and Fahrenheit 9/11 to become the most successful winner of the Palme d’Or at the worldwide box office. 

The success of Parasite on all these levels has not arisen from nowhere; Bong’s film comes on the crest of a rising wave of international appreciation for contemporary Korean cinema. Alongside films by Kim Jee Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, 2003, I Saw the Devil, 2010) and Park Chan Wook (Oldboy, 2003, Stoker, 2013), Bong’s previous works – including The Host, 2006 and Okja, 2017 – have carved out a niche for a particular brand of dark, genre-hopping cinema. These are directors who have immense craft and style, and with it are willing to explore darker, more transgressive areas than the majority of mainstream filmmakers working in English. Interestingly, despite some forays into English-language cinema, it is their Korean films that have gained these directors their biggest followings with international audiences to date. 

In the final moments of Parasite, we are shown a happy ending that we know will never come true. We know this because it is prefaced by a key character saying, “I have made a plan”. And if there is one thing that the film makes clear it is that in life, nothing ever goes according to plan. The ending is subdued, downbeat and bleak, and marks a final swerve in tone from the masterfully-orchestrated chaos that the main story builds to. In his excellent piece 'The Makings of Bong Joon Ho', Tony Rayns notes that “Bong’s instinctive retreat from orthodox generic endings and narrative closures is one symptom of his general ambivalence about genre. He’s happy enough to give his films generic identities, but even happier when he crashes the gears by making hairpin narrative turns or giving a dramatic scene a black-comic twist.”  Like Hitchcock, Bong always uses his adherence to style and genre as a way of further serving the audience; giving us what we want, even when we didn’t know that’s what we wanted.

Amazingly, this is the first chance for a wide UK audience to watch a Bong film in the cinema since the release of his breakout film The Host in 2006. His brilliant 2009 thriller Mother had a very limited cinema run, then he made two starry English-language films - Snowpiercer (2013) and Okja (2017) – both of which ended up bypassing British cinemas, almost entirely. Snowpiercer fell foul of now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein’s insistence on it being re-cut for theatrical release (Bong refused, opting to keep his version and losing a cinema release in the process). Okja was produced by Netflix, made before the streamer had established its current process for releasing films in UK cinemas. For anyone encountering Bong for the first time through Parasite, his is a rich world of cinematic pleasures, waiting to be explored.

Paul Gallagher
GFT Programme Manager
6 February 2020

If you have watched Parasite and want to share your thoughts on the film, we would love to hear from you. Tweet @glasgowfilm or email and tell us what you thought.



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